Let my inspiration flow

So, you are starting a new graduate program, or postdoc or even your very own shiny new lab. The world of science is at your fingertips. Pools of knowledge await to be discovered. Clouds in the horizon look puffy and white, reminding you of all the wonderful papers that you will publish. The lab benches gleam with rainbow-colored rays. Unicorns dance around your Pipetmen. Music from the Mojo Banjo fills the air. You’re ready to kick some science butt!!

But…what the fuck are you going to work on?! Sure, you picked a lab or wrote a grant that more or less indicates the area you are going to study. Your PI might suggest some stuff, or you have some stuff left over from your postdoc work. But this is YOUR project, how do you find ideas for new projects?

When I started graduate school, I joined a lab in which my advisor did work that was very interesting to me, and stayed since we got along well. When it was time to pick a project, he said “Well, I was just reading this somewhat crappy paper from an even crappier journal which, if true, would be a very interesting finding. Why don’t you replicate this properly and use this as the basis for your PhD.” Naively I said, “Sure!”. Of course this turned to be a rather obscure brain nucleus with very few papers showing how to do electrophysiological recordings from it, and most of the labs that had worked on it had since moved on to something else. When I asked my PI for help he said, “Well your guess is as good as mine, I’ve never worked with this part of the brain.” So I had to ask an older, bearded neuroanatomist upstairs to show me on his dusty old brain slides how to locate this nucleus in rodents and how to best prepare brain tissue for this. And it took me the better part of a year to figure out the experimental preparation and to do experiments reliably. But then after that, I managed to properly replicate the findings of the original paper, and expand them onto several high-profile papers which stemmed from the original experiments. Not only that, but I was one of a handful of people who could record record from this nucleus, so we didn’t have to worry about much competition. At least at first.

This approach of reading even the lowliest of papers in your field, I think is a good way to get ideas. Not because you are stealing someone else’s (they are published after all), but really to use them as a basis for coming up with better and creative ways to re-do experiments that were interesting, yet perhaps not conclusive, or sloppy. Also, sometimes in a paper there will be one obscure figure, that is somewhat beside the point of the main paper but shows an interesting finding. These sort of side findings are also often sources of good ideas. That is why its important to really read widely in your field and beyond. Not just focus on papers in fancy journals, because you may be missing out on a treasure trove of good ideas, even from crappyish papers.

How about you, where do you get your ideas for new projects?


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4 Responses to Let my inspiration flow

  1. Simon says:

    I forget which famous scientist said that if you’re interested in the next big thing in biology, go back twenty years (I’m paraphrasing).

    I think it makes a lot of sense that in science, researchers take experiments only as far as the technology allows. They then move on to other issues, and when the technology has caught up to the original experiments, they have likely re-focused their work on another problem. The fact that the lab is a living community with many people with diverse interests also contributes to labs leaving old problems behind.

    A few years or decades later, you can revisit the original idea with better tools and an understanding of the original problem in a different, modern context.

  2. NatC says:

    That’s a great strategy! Going to have to try that!

    Right now I’m working on a project that I hammered out while trying to work out how to apply for a grant offered by a foundation entirely out of my field. (Don’t judge! I was a non-resident post-doc)

    I googled a mash-up of search terms that included my main interest and one part of Foundation field, and found a chunk of recent clinical data that is absolutley my-field-relevant. The project has evolved, and I still haven’t managed to secure funding from that foundation, but I do have a grant for this project from within my own field.
    I still feel like I have no idea what I’m talking about half of the time, but…I’m getting there.

    Now I’m working on the project I’m really hoping something comes out of it! I don’t care if it’s not what I expected.

    Bonus – it’s totally different from what my PD advisor does, and yet somehow a natural progression to my past work.

  3. odyssey says:

    What Simon said. Some of my most productive projects have their roots in the “old” (>20 year old, often much greater than) literature.* There are a great many observations reported in the older literature that the investigators of the time did not understand and could not follow up on due to a lack of instrumentation and/or techniques that have since been developed.

    Another source: a well-known scientist I’ve interacted with on occasion has been know to say something along the lines of “If you want a really good project crack open a textbook and find a sentence that starts ‘It is well known that…’ There’s your project.” It’s remarkable how many “well known” things aren’t.

    * I should note that my first paper is >20 years old now…

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